The Greatest Evil
Congress needs to butt out of our business.


The gears of the nanny state ground forward last week as the Senate Commerce Committee held hearings to determine whether movies that portray smoking should receive an “R” rating. As usual, the government was all stick and very little carrot.

”We’re calling for personal restraint. We’re calling for personal responsibility,” Sen. John Ensign (R., Nev.), said, quite reasonably, followed all too quickly by Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), who was less magnanimous. “If something isn’t done by the industry, something will be done by Congress,” Wyden threatened. “Personal responsibility” apparently now means living up to the arbitrary whims and mores determined by the federal government. So long as those whims are bipartisan, of course.

This in the midst of an election campaign that, so we are told, is one of the most significant in our country’s recent history: The economy is collapsing, terrorists are at our doorstep, global environmental ruin is imminent, and baby boomers are more likely to retire to cardboard boxes than to Florida. I’ve seen John Kerry’s commercials, and it’s not pretty. Yet our government has determined that Now is the time to end the scourge of smoke on the silver screen.

So what is a movie rating exactly? The original ratings system was created as a response to a 1968 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the rights of states and cities to keep certain books and films available to adults out of the purview of children. In other words, ratings are meant to protect children from something they otherwise would not have contact with in the public square.

The “R” rating, as it stands today, warns parents that a film contains nudity, sexual situations, hard language, or illegal-drug use. These are reasonable cultural demarcation lines because each of these acts in a public setting before a child would be illegal. A couple having sex on an elementary-school playground would be arrested, for example. Shooting heroin in front of your neighbor’s kid while repeatedly shouting the “F” word could get you in trouble as well.

Smoking is an altogether separate matter. Cigarettes are not an illegal product, and their use by adults is accepted in public. Parents, friends, older siblings, bad-boy (and -girl) musicians can all smoke in front of them, without consequence. A parent, teacher, or older sibling can all light up in their presence without facing a citation or a ride downtown. More importantly, the oh-so-cool 18-year-old leather-jacket rebel at the mall could smoke with coolly detached nihilism and mall security would be forced to stand by helplessly. The draw will still be there.

Further, in threatening to regulate an industry which to a large extent already regulates itself, Congress is accomplishing nothing. Children are not being protected from anything in that darkened theater that they will not be privy to on any sunlit street in America. Do we really want to equate smoking with abject violence or crack cocaine? Will that send a message about what “personal responsibility” means in a free society for the next generation?

Worse, regulation would set a terrible precedent. Government regulation always has unintended consequences, a point that was not lost on Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti, who told lawmakers that if the rating system were to stand at the whim of special-interest groups, it would not end with a ban on smoking. Overeating is, long term, as deadly as smoking. Will depicting Happy Meals require an “R” rating next? Environmental and animal-rights groups, Valenti pointed out, would love to have their agendas affect ratings as well.

“I want to make sure this rating system does not get cluttered up with a bunch of other people who have equally passionate views that want to be included,” Valenti said Tuesday. “I’ve lived this for 38 years and I understand it very well.”

An “R” rating also needs to be taken seriously by the film industry because it makes a large cut into a film’s potential audience. To foist such a limiting factor onto a project unnecessarily is a form of politically correct economic warfare.

In the end, it is absolutely true that smoking is dangerous. But so too is rock-climbing or skydiving or not hassling Islamic militants on FBI watch-lists at flight schools. Educating children on the risks of smoking will cut down on under-age smoking, but it will never eliminate it. To believe that sheltering children from something in movie theaters that is perfectly legal at home will suddenly end the teen-smoking problem is merely pie-in-the-sky fantasy. For the government to believe it is their business to make artistic decisions for filmmakers is arrogant. If smoking is not insidious enough to be outlawed completely, then let’s allow parents, not Congress, to worry about raising our children.

Shawn Macomber is a staff writer at The American Spectator.